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History, History of the Coast

Fort Jesus, Portuguese explorer Vasco, Swahili language, Lamu, Omanis

The Kenyan coast developed differently from the interior due to its exposure to the Indian Ocean sphere of exploration and trade. Over the course of the first millennium, a separate Bantu language and culture, which came to be known as Swahili, developed along the East African coast. This development was strongly influenced by contact with Arabs from the Persian Gulf, who traded, settled, and intermarried with the coastal Africans. By the 9th century the Swahili-speaking people had established a number of towns between present-day Somalia and Mozambique, including Mombasa, Lamu, and Pate in what is now Kenya. These towns became important trade centers, facilitating commerce between residents of the Kenyan interior and seafaring traders from Arabia, Persia, India, and elsewhere on the Indian Ocean. The main exports from these Swahili towns were ivory, slaves, and timber and other raw materials. By the 12th century many of the Swahili inhabitants of the towns had adopted Islam. Some towns, such as Mombasa, grew wealthy, gaining control of coastal and inland territory and developing into city-states. A number of these Swahili city-states dotted the Kenyan coast by the time the Portuguese arrived at the start of the 16th century.

After Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama successfully sailed around Africa to India and back between 1497 and 1499, the Portuguese began actively exploring the Indian Ocean coast. At first the Portuguese were interested in dominating trade on the seas rather than controlling mainland territory in East Africa. At the end of the 16th century, however, the Portuguese constructed Fort Jesus, a massive fortress at Mombasa, in order to exercise greater control ashore. Portuguese dominance did not last long, as the Portuguese faced competition from the Arab dynastic state in Oman, which also sought to control much of the East African coast. The Swahili states, together with the Omani Arabs, succeeded in driving the Portuguese from Kenya’s coast by the end of the 17th century. The Swahili states resisted Omani attempts to control the coast, but by the 1840s the Omanis had established dominance. Commerce expanded as trade in African slaves boomed. Omani rule over the area brought further Arabic influence to Swahili language and culture. In the 19th century the East African coast also experienced greater contact with Europe, in the form of commerce and attempts by Britain to stamp out the African slave trade. British influence in the region grew, culminating in Britain’s halting of the slave trade in the late 1800s and its takeover of Kenya at the end of the century.

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